Social justice is more than a footnote in the Torah. It’s a central theme, maintains Little Rock Rabbi Barry Block.
The Holiness Code in Leviticus requires more than sacrifices and Sabbath observance; it addresses fair labor practices, care for the elderly, and relief for the poor, observes Block in the introduction to “The Social Justice Torah Commentary”.
“The message is clear: Israel serves God no less by seeking social justice than through proper worship,” he adds.
The new Torah commentary, edited by Block, was recently released by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which describes itself as “the oldest and largest rabbinical organization in North America.”
Block is the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel, which he has led since 2013.
In Hebrew, Torah means teaching, instruction or law. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible are also called the Torah.
Following a longstanding practice, the commentary divides these books into 54 passages – one for each full week of a Jewish leap year. Each parashah’s commentary (Hebrew for “portion”) addresses a topic of social justice, ranging from voting rights and slavery reparations to reproductive choice and mass incarceration.
Some temple devotees would prefer to avoid hot topics.
“People say, ‘Rabbi, we want you to teach Torah, not politics. We want you to preach on Torah, not politics.’ As if they were different things or entirely separate things,” Block said at a book launch event co-sponsored by the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
But the Torah contains God’s commandments on “how to organize a society, how people should live in community with one another, how we care for the most vulnerable among us and those who might lack a voice if we do not ‘let’s not amplify their voices,’” Block said.
Torah teachings, Block argues, remain relevant today, for those seeking to build a more just, peaceful, and compassionate society.
Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, agrees.
“As Jews, we believe it is our duty to make the world a better place and a book like this that brings together Torah and social justice helps create a roadmap for us,” he said. she said at the book launch.
Block did “a magnificent job” of bringing together a wide variety of rabbis to write the chapters, Person said.
The finished commentary is “an incredible resource,” she said.
“This book connects theory to everyday life and helps us find our way to the highest aspirations of Jewish values,” she added.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, called Block a “remarkable editor.”
“I believe this commentary, this Torah commentary, is one of the most important publications of this generation,” he said.
By distilling a theme of social justice into each of the parts, the commentary provides weekly insight for rabbis and others.
The scriptures, inscribed on scrolls, are venerated and read.
“Jews in synagogue life read the Torah, the five books of Moses, in an annual cycle every year, then on a holiday that we call Simchat Torah, in the fall, we pick it up and start again the same evening. We always teach and believe that there is always something new to take from the old text,” Block said.
Complete all 54 parts and you will have read the entire Torah.
“In an Orthodox synagogue, they would read the whole part aloud on a Shabbat morning. We usually choose certain verses to read, but we always choose them from that part for that week,” Block said.
In the commentary, Block’s part is Leviticus 19:1-20:27, but he focuses on Leviticus 19:9-10, which states:
“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap the whole corner of your field, neither shall you reap the gleaning of your crop. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor reap the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them to the poor and to the stranger: I am the LORD your God.
“In ancient Israel,” Block writes, “providing for the poor was not optional.”
Today, most Jews are not farmers, but they still have a moral obligation to help the poor, he argues.
“Paying taxes is a way of fulfilling this commandment today,” he adds.
“When we pay for SNAP, the food stamp program that provides subsistence nutritional assistance, mainly to the working poor, we leave the corner of our field,” he writes, citing it as an example.
Helping the poor is not optional, he stresses.
“It is a mitzvah, a religious obligation imposed on every Jew,” he wrote.
Asked about the switch, Block said: “We are required to set aside a corner of our produce – in other words, a portion of our income – to meet the needs of those who don’t have those fields, who don’t have the advantages that the rest of us have.”
Block said he enjoyed working with dozens of fellow rabbis to create the Commentary.
“Part of what I’m so happy about the book is its diversity. Not just the diversity of authors, but the diversity of positions [they take],” he said.
Several chapters deal with racial justice.
One of the chapters of the commentary focuses on “The ‘original sin’ of slavery”. Another is titled “Lynching: Justice and the Idolatry Tree.”
A third chapter deals with Confederate statues while another discusses the possibility of reparations for the descendants of enslaved blacks.
“Jews understand the power of reparations,” writes Judith Schindler, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina, noting that Germany paid reparations to some of its victims after World War II.
Prior to the opening of “The Social Justice Torah Commentary,” Block acknowledges racism and oppression in his own family tree.
As he was finishing work on the project, he was handed a page from the 1860 Louisiana Slave Census, “actual proof to me that an ancestor—in this case, my great-great-great-great- mother, Magdalena Seeleman – was a slaver,” he writes.
Block, who supports reparations, dedicated the book to the memory of the black woman her ancestor once owned.